David Cameron’s promise when establishing the Leveson Inquiry in July 2011 that he would ensure a new era of openness about ministers’ meetings with media proprietors and executives is proving to be an empty gesture.
Five months have elapsed without any new information being released and the Prime Minister’s published log for his first fourteen months in Downing Street was a meaningless charade. He hid behind euphemisms such as “general discussion” when describing the purpose of meetings with Rupert and James Murdoch.
Parliamentary questions tabled by the Labour MP John McDonnell have failed to elicit any indication as to when Cameron will release further data about either his own meetings with “proprietors, senior executives and editors” or those involving other ministers and special advisers.
If there is to be accountability and an end to kind of collusive relationship between Cameron and News International which was exposed as a result of the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, there has to be a meaningful explanation of both the nature and outcome of all such discussions.
While much of initial emphasis of the inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson has been on the behaviour of journalists, the judge has also been asked to examine abuses in the current concentration of media ownership and recommend new measures to govern the “future conduct of relations between politicians and the press.”
The only way to ensure these relationships are properly policed is by enforcing a code of conduct which requires full transparency on the part of the government and shadow ministers.
Cameron and his cabinet colleagues have listed the dates and names for meetings with media executives and editors in the first fourteen months since the 2010 general election. But by hiding behind catch-all phrases such as “general discussion”, “reception” and “social” they have failed to reveal either the extent or purpose of the deliberations which took place between May 2010 and July 2011.
Final clearance of the Murdochs’ attempt to take full control of BSkyB was only averted by a matter of days after The Guardian reported on 5 July 2011 that the News of the World had tapped into – and even deleted – messages left on the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
With the help and guidance of the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, Cameron had gone to extraordinary lengths to woo Murdoch and his son James, promising that an incoming Conservative government would strip the broadcasting regulator Ofcom of its policy-making functions, cut back the output of the BBC, and ease up on the rules regarding cross media ownership.
Precisely who said what to whom, from Coulson’s hiring by the Conservatives in May 2007 through to polling day three years later, and then during the period since the election, is now a matter for the Leveson inquiry.
The judge’s tasks include inquiring into the “contacts made, and discussions had, between national newspapers and politicians” and to make recommendations about the “future conduct of relations between politicians and the press.”
When Cameron announced Leveson’s appointment, he tried to keep one step ahead of the inquiry by proposing an immediate amendment to the ministerial code to require ministers to “record all meetings with newspaper and other media proprietors, senior editors and executives – regardless of the nature of the meeting.” Permanent secretaries and special advisers would also be required to record any such meetings; the information would be released on a quarterly basis.
Almost immediately Cameron, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and the Labour leader Ed Miliband listed their meetings since taking office. But their declarations made a mockery of the need for transparency because except for identifying who, when and where they met the lists gave no hint as to either the purpose or the outcome of their deliberations.
Cameron used the catch-all term “general discussion” alongside eight of the entries for meetings with either Rupert or James Murdoch or one or other of the News International editors. There was no indication as to the topics discussed nor was there any clue as to what transpired during Rebekah Brooks’ two visits to Chequers or the Prime Minister’s social engagements with James Murdoch and other News International executives.
Therefore the point which has to be addressed is the reality of life in Westminster and Whitehall: politicians and their spin doctors socialise with media proprietors, executives and editors for a purpose and the outcome of their deliberations needs to be declared.
Collusion takes many forms and if the Leveson inquiry is to come up with meaningful recommendations it must recognise that media proprietors can assist the government of the day – or equally the opposition – with favourable party political propaganda.
Past editions of the Sun reveal the sheer inadequacy of Cameron’s declarations so far. His engagements for August 2010 listed Rebekah Brooks’ second visit to Chequers but made no mention of the discussions which must have preceded the publication of a two-page spread and signed article by the Prime Minister which launched a hotline for Sun readers to expose “benefit scroungers”. (Sun, 12.8.2010)
Similarly, his five engagements in October 2010 with Brooks and News International editors made no reference to another two-page spread and signed article which provided Cameron with a platform to re-launch the “Big Society”. (Sun, 8.10.2010)
By supplying favourable coverage which promoted the narratives of the coalition government the Sun was giving Cameron every encouragement to honour his election promises. The timing of such articles in the summer of autumn is significant: in October 2010, the government imposed a six year freeze in the BBC licence fee and at the same time was doing all it could to smooth the path of News Corporation’s bid for full control of BSkyB.
Negotiations with the Sun’s editorial team during that immediate post-election period might have been conducted by either Coulson himself or brokered by Downing Street’s team of special advisers but such was scale of the benefit for the government – and for Cameron himself – that their omission from the Prime Minister’s log underlines the inadequacy of the declarations made so far.
If the “future conduct of relations between politicians and the press” is to be policed effectively, the Leveson inquiry must insist that ministers can no longer hide behind terms like “general discussion”. A code of conduct should ensure full transparency:
Ministers should avoid meeting or socialising with proprietors, executives and editors when a take-over bid or similar application or referral is being considered by the government or regulators such as Ofcom, the Competition Commission and Office of Fair Trading.
Ministers, party leaders, shadow ministers and special advisers must list not only the date and nature of meetings and social engagements but also the purpose and any outcome.
Full declaration is required of negotiations aimed at securing party political promotions in newspapers and other media outlets e.g. signed articles, endorsement of press campaigns, exclusive interviews etc